Musings on August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (3.30.2021)


For each session, my intention is to come up with some unique perspective in understanding the play. Sometimes I succeed and achieve that goal. Sometimes I do not. This time I come pretty close.

The key issue, and the central lesson of The Piano Lesson, is repeated by August Wilson in interview after interview. The issue is, ”can you acquire a healthy sense of self worth by denying your past?”

On the surface, it might appear that Berniece is the one who wants to preserve the historical basis of the family’s sense of self-worth through her refusal to sell the piano with all its artifacts that detail family history. Similarly, on the surface, it might appear that Boy Willie is willing to ignore that history in order to buy the 100 acres of farmland where their ancestors were slaves and later, sharecroppers.

But beneath the surface, we learn that 1) Berniece never plays the piano; and most significantly, 2) Berniece has never explained to her daughter Maretha the history of the piano and its symbolic artifacts, the history of the family, or anything else that might actually suggest a sense of self worth. Berniece tells Maretha to “don’t act your color,” suggesting there is something inherently inferior about her complexion. Additionally, while “fixing her hair,” Berniece tells Maretha that if she were a boy, they wouldn’t have to go through that painful process of placing a hot comb to her scalp, suggesting there may be something inferior, as well, about her gender. That Berniece is a piece of work! Berniece wants to ignore her family history in the rural south in order to build a different future for her family in the urban north.

Boy Willie, perhaps on the other hand, acknowledges his southern roots, so much that he wants to buy the land his ancestors worked when they were enslaved. But in order to complete the purchase, Boy Willie has decided he needs the proceeds from selling the family heirloom, the piano.

The tradeoff, stripped of all the accompanying baggage, seems very straight forward.

Let’s pause here and come back later. Let’s talk about the art.

According to Wilson, the Romare Bearden painting, The Piano Lesson, provided him inspiration to write the play. In the Bearden painting, you see what appears to be Maretha seated and Berniece standing over and instructing her at the piano.

Bearden: Homage to Mary Lou Williams, The Piano Lesson

The painting actually was a tribute to the jazz singer/artist/performer Mary Lou Williams, with whom Bearden’s wife Nanette and her dancing company had done an artistic collaboration while Williams was Artist in Residence at Duke University. The original Bearden collage/painting didn’t have all the family portraits carved into the wood. That was Wilson’s innovation.

But back to the collage. In a wide ranging interview with Myron Schwartzmann in a huge coffee table book Schwartzmann completed entitled, “Romare Bearden: His Life and Art,” whose foreword was written, by the way, by August Wilson, Bearden takes us from the original diagrammatic drawing (ink on paper), to the black and white 1983 oil with collage of the Mecklenburg Autumn series, to the silkscreen ink on tracing paper, to the final 1984 version fully colored.

The complete Mecklenburg Autumn series, named for the North Carolina county where Bearden was born, included, among many, a piece called Autumn Lamp, which featured a guitar player and his guitar. In producing the painting/collage, Bearden followed a procedure established by the French impressionist Edouard Manet, as recorded by his contemporary, another French impressionist, Claude Monet. Monet wrote that Manet always wanted to give the impression that a painting was completed in one sitting, so at the end of each day in production, he would scrape down whatever he had produced, keeping only the lowest layer. Then each new day he would “improvise” on that bottom layer. At some point, Manet would stop the process, but in fact, a Manet painting made in this manner was never actually completed.

In other paintings in the series, Bearden used images from his childhood.

For The Piano Lesson, also called Homage to Mary Lou Williams, Bearden found inspiration in two Matisse paintings, The Music Lesson and The Piano Lesson, left to right, below.

Without going too far afield, one can see not only how Bearden’s images influenced Wilson, but also how his processes and production “technologies” influenced how Wilson produced plays, going through multiple rehearsal revisions, yet improvising on the ever present foundation drawing, the original vision if you will. Yet another piece of the story is that Matisse was influenced by Van Gogh, who did his own “Piano Lesson,” Marguerite Gachet At The Piano. I will leave this link with you for further study and investigation. https://www.vincent-van-gogh-gallery.org/Marguerite-Gachet-At-The-Piano.html

Bearden continues in this part of the interview with other influences on his work, his study of the Dutch Masters, especially Vermeer, his study of the French impressionists during his sojourn in Paris, and his reading of Clausewitz, On War, and how the chaos of war is resolved though the elimination of options. He wrote of classic Chinese painting which he considered the “greatest of paintings,”


For instance, a Chinese painter, in the classic days, when he looked at the rocks and trees, felt a certain oneness with them. And he was, himself, although painting it, part of the landscape which he was painting. He looked upon the large tree, let us say, as a father tree, the others as his children; the largest mountain, perhaps, as a father mountain, or a mother, and smaller, children mountains. So he imbued nature with human concerns. . . . In this way he was ablest the very beginning, to think of the relationships in his painting because of the relationships with a family.”

I have gone a bit off on a tangent with this Bearden thing, but when Wilson says that Bearden was one of his principle influences, we really should both take that at face value and look deeper.

An interesting story captured by Richard Long, essayist and critic, in his essay “Bearden, Theater, Film and Dance,” reports how he noticed an op-ed Wilson wrote for the New York Times that mentioned his indebtedness to Bearden’s influence. Long showed the op-ed to Bearden over breakfast and asked him if he had seen it and what he thought about it. Bearden, who had never met and would never meet Wilson remarked, “Well, he could have at least sent me tickets to the show.” Wilson would say in subsequent interviews that he actually stood outside Bearden’s apartment but would not go in to see him (hoping perhaps to catch him in transit, maybe). It’s a shame they never directly collaborated.

Two more thoughts on The Piano Lesson before I stop.

It dawned on me, and perhaps on you, that Boy Willie and Berniece are quibbling in the play over what amounts to stolen property. In a previous session I traced the lineage, the provenance of the artifact, the piano. The transaction that resulted in the Charles family acquiring the piano was a theft by Boy Willie’s father, Boy Charles, along with his uncles, Doaker and Wining Boy. Plain and simple. I know all about how the piano was exchanged for two enslaved people who were also ancestors of Boy Willie and Berniece and I know how horrible slavery was as an institution. I am descended from enslaved people and I grew up hearing the stories. But let’s be honest. Slavery was protected and preserved by the U.S. Constitution. Slavery was the law of the land in the states where it was legitimately practiced. The state legislatures approved it. The national Senate and House of Representatives allowed it. And the Supreme Court affirmed its legitimacy in a number of cases and decisions. They were all in on it. It took a Civil War and the deaths of six hundred thousand soldiers on both sides to correct the wrong that was slavery, something that should have been able to be worked out by rational people over a dining room table.

Yet, try as we might, we cannot really morally justify the theft of the piano, no matter what images were carved into it. Don’t get sucked in by the emotional appeal.

Finally, I want to call your attention to the fact that The Piano Lesson was the first August Wilson play adapted for film, and for television, no less. Hallmark. One astute observer recorded that on the night that the Hallmark movie aired on television, more people were exposed to August Wilson than all the audiences of all the plays previously performed in all the theaters worldwide. Le’s add that more black people got access to August Wilson than ever before. As we know from earlier reading, mechanical reproduction will increase the exhibition value of Wilson’s work but what is lost is the cult value, the ritual of the romance of the energy exchanged across the stage and into the audience.

postscript. Samuel L Jackson plans to produce and direct a Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson late this year, and a film adaptation using the same cast in 2022. Let us add, the Good Lord and COVID willing.

postscript#2. NaPoWriMo requires a poem about a piece of art. How about The Piano Lesson?

The black mirror invites my inspection –
A scaled representation of the whole.
The wooden metronome in its foreground
Reminds one of rhythm and time’s passage,
The pendulum’s swing until the winding
Dies. The young girl, black like the mirror, plays
As her mother directs. The mother’s face,
More blue than black, leans in attentively.
A non-flowering plant rests in a vase.
A paintbrush seems out of place. It could be
A missing conductor’s baton. The sun
Bursts through the window as a slight breeze blows
The curtains askew. A ceiling lamp and
A table lamp compete to light the room.

Session #4

Session #3 post-class notes 3.30.2019

Session #3 pre-class notes 3.28.2019

Session #2 notes

Session #1 notes

YouTube playlist

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